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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Oral Literature  |  Folktales



The Snake and the King's Daughter

Once upon a time there was an old woman who had no children and owned nothing but the little cottage she lived in. Every day, she would go into the forest to gather firewood. One day a little snake slithered into her bundle of wood. Not noticing it, the old woman heaved the wood over her shoulder and returned home. When she dropped the wood on the floor, the snake crawled out and began to play with the cat. The old woman left the snake alone and kept it for a son because she had no children. The snake grew and grew and one day it said to her, "Old woman, go to the king and tell him to give me his daughter in marriage." She replied, "All right, my son, but how do you expect the king to give you his only daughter. You're a snake!" "That doesn't matter, mother, go anyway and we'll see what he says."

The old woman did as the snake had said and went to see the king. But the guards at the palace gate, having asked her what she wanted and what her business with the king was, would not let her enter. The old woman, nevertheless, refused to be turned away and insisted on seeing the king alone, until finally the guards allowed her to pass. She went up to see the king and said to him, "I am very embarrassed about this, but I promised to ask you, so I will. My son is a snake and wants to marry Your Majesty's daughter." When the king heard this, he became furious and kicked the old woman down the stairs, breaking her leg. She limped home, cursing the snake because she was now a cripple. The snake said to her, "Don't worry about your leg, I'll heal it. But you must not give up yet!"

The snake then produced a ring, blew on it and said, "Heal the old woman's leg!" Immediately the leg was healed. The next morning the snake sent the old woman back to the king and the very same thing happened. After being kicked and beaten, she swore she would never again set foot in the palace again.

The third day, the snake said to her, "Go back to the king again. This is the last time I'll send you." The old woman was unwilling at first, but since the snake promised that it was the last time, she went back to the king and said to him, "Your Majesty, I must have your daughter as a wife for my son. Otherwise I will be in great trouble." The king chuckled and replied, "I will give my daughter to your son under the following conditions. Your cottage must be a palace as big as mine by tomorrow. The path from your door to my door must be spanned with silk and four hundred attendants must be waiting on horseback, one for every hue and colour on earth. If you can do all that by tomorrow morning, I will give my daughter to your son in marriage." When the old woman heard this she departed, happy this time not to be kicked and beaten about. She reported to the snake what the king had said and the snake simply replied, "Everything will be ready in time."

At the stroke of midnight, the snake blew on the ring and said, "May the old woman's cottage turn into a palace bigger than the king's!" And at once the cottage became a palace. The old woman, who was sleeping on a mat on the floor, suddenly found herself in a real bed complete with a bell for the maid. The snake then blew on the ring again and said, "May the path between our door and the door of the king's palace be spanned with silk!" And so it happened. Then the snake blew on the ring a third time and said, "May four hundred attendants on horseback, dressed in every hue and colour, await our command!" And they too appeared. When the snake was finished, he lay down to go to sleep. Before doing so, however, he ordered the attendants on horseback to keep guard around the house.

When the king got up the next morning, he looked out the window and saw a huge, magnificent palace and wondered whom it belonged to. He called his wife over and asked her, "Is that really a palace, wife, or are my eyes deceiving me?" "It is a palace all right," she replied. "Yesterday there was a cottage there belonging to an old woman." Then the king remembered the conditions he had set the old woman and the two of them, the king and queen, began to lament the fate of their poor daughter. Now she would have to marry the snake because they had given their word and could not break it. The time came for the bride to be fetched and the horsemen were readied. They mounted the snake in the saddle with them and, singing a ballad, rode off to the king. There they lifted the snake off the horse and took it to the king and queen. The two were most distressed and thought to themselves, "It would be better for us to kill our daughter. What a dreadful fate to have a snake for a son in law!

The attendants picked up the bride and the wedding took place. After the festivities, the time came for the groom to be led to the bride's chamber. When the girl saw the snake, she screamed in horror. The snake, however, shed its skin and turned into such a handsome young man that she was completely overwhelmed. Then he said to her, "My dear wife, never tell anyone that I am a human being by night and a snake by day. For if you do I will disappear and you will never find me again!" She replied, "All right, dear husband, I won't tell anyone. But tell me at least what your name is!" He told her he was called Swift. The next morning the king sent someone to the snake's palace to find out whether his daughter was still alive. When he was told that she was fine and there was no need to worry, he became suspicious and didn't believe what he had heard.

The next week, the king sent a servant to invite his daughter and the snake to lunch. When his daughter and his son in law arrived, the girl's mother began to weep, saying, "Oh, my poor daughter. We have caused you such grief! How miserable you must be!" But the girl replied that she felt very lucky.

A few days later, a great wedding was to be held in another part of town, to which the king and his daughter were invited. The snake said to his wife, "You go ahead. I'll come later this evening so that no one will know that it is I, turned into a human being. And remember, you mustn't tell anybody what you know because you won't see me again if you do." The girl went off to the wedding alone and when darkness fell, the snake shed its skin, put on some splendid garments and followed her. When the two arrived, everyone rose in awe because they thought an angel had just come in. A little later, he began to dance so gracefully that everyone stood still in amazement and thought, "That is no being of this world. He must be from heaven!" The girl's mother, sitting beside her, said, "My dear girl, how lucky you would be if you had a man like that for a husband!" The girl couldn't stand it any longer and burst out, "That is my husband, mother. That is Swift, the man I love." The moment she spoke, Swift became invisible and no one understood where he had disappeared to so swiftly. The girl looked around, could not see him anywhere and broke into tears. "Now look what you made me do, mother!" she sobbed. "He warned me not to tell anyone who he was or he would leave me forever! I must set off in search of him. He told me that if I tried to find him I would need iron shoes, an iron staff and a travelling case." Her parents gave her what she needed and she set off in search of her husband.

She roamed for days and nights and finally went to seek the advice of the sun. Only the sun's mother and children were at home and the children immediately set upon the girl to devour her. The mother, however, stopped them and invited the girl in. "Why have you come here?" she asked. The girl told her everything that had happened and said, "I would like to ask your child, the sun, whether he has seen my husband anywhere in the course of his travels." The old woman replied, "The sun isn't back yet, but we can ask him when he gets in. I fear though that he will eat you up when he comes back all tired and smells a human being." "He won't eat me if you don't want him to," countered the girl. The old woman felt sorry for her and hid her. When the sun came home for dinner, exhausted from his long journey, he said to his mother the moment he sat down, "I smell human flesh. Bring me some of it to eat, because I'm terribly tired." The mother replied, "There is no human here, my lad. Who would possibly come to visit us?" "Oh yes there is," said the sun, "Bring me the human. I won't eat him, I'll just ask what he wants." The old woman made the sun promise not to eat the human, brought the girl out of hiding and took her to the sun. The girl said to the sun, "I'm looking for Swift, my husband. I've come to ask Your Majesty if you've seen him anywhere in the course of your travels." The sun replied, "No, I haven't seen him anywhere. But go and ask the moon if he's seen him at night."

The poor girl continued on her way, wandering for many days and nights until she finally reached the moon. The moon could not tell her anything either and sent her on to the wind. Once again she set off, this time in search of the wind. By now she was exhausted from walking and, with the last ounce of her energy just managed to reach the house of the wind. There she met the wind's elderly mother and the little wind children who came blowing around to devour her. The old women stopped them, however, and invited the girl in.

"Why have you come here, my daughter?" she asked. The girl told her the reason for her journey and where she had been. The wind's mother said, "We'll ask him. I'm afraid though that he'll eat you up on the spot when he comes back all tired and smells a human being." But the girl insisted once more, saying, "He won't eat me if you don't want him to." The old woman took pity on the girl and hid her.

When the wind came in for breakfast, he could smell human flesh right away and said to his mother, "I smell human flesh. Bring me some of it to eat, for I am very tired." The mother replied, "How could there possibly be any humans here?" But he insisted that his mother bring forth the human and finally promised, "I won't eat the human, mother, but bring him out so that I can ask him a few questions." The mother made the wind give his word of honour and brought the girl out. The wind asked her why she had gone to all the trouble she'd been through. "I am in search of Swift, my husband," said the girl, "It has been a long time since he disappeared and I haven't been able to find him." "Your husband is being held prisoner by a Kulshedra beyond the sea. He's a long, long way from here," said the wind. The girl implored him, "I must find him, no matter how far away he is. I beg Your Excellency to take me with you across the sea." The wind replied, "I would gladly take you with me, but I'm afraid you would fall off along the way, because I am very swift." "No, I won't fall off," she assured him. "Please take me with you."

The wind took pity on the girl and lifted her up on his back, saying, "Hold onto my hair and don't look down or you'll get dizzy." The wind gave out a strong gust and carried the girl across the sea, depositing her beside a spring. The poor girl had just sat down for a while to rest when suddenly a terrifying roar echoed from the mountains. A Kulshedra appeared at the spring and, catching sight of the girl, began to hop around on one leg, chanting, "First I had one, now I have two, my precious one." It seized the girl and took her to its home where Swift was being held prisoner. He recognized his wife at once, but didn't dare say anything because he was frightened of the Kulshedra. Making sure the Kulshedra would not notice, he threw his ring into a jug that the wife had to wash so that she would know he was there. And it worked. As she was washing the jug, the ring fell into her hands and she recognized it as her husband's. Later when they had an opportunity to see one another, he whispered to her, "Don't talk to me when the Kulshedra is present or it will devour us."

The Kulshedra fed the two of them well so that it could devour them later, the wife first and then the husband. It had also overheard them talking. One day the Kulshedra said to the wife, "When I get back for dinner, my girl, I want to find the house swept in certain parts and unswept in others." As the poor wife was wondering what to do, her husband woke up and asked what she was thinking. She told him about the Kulshedra's orders and that she was wondering how to carry them out. The husband said, "Let me take care of things! Look for a bread crust and bring it here. Use it to sweep the floor and draw it behind you when you put it away. That way some parts of the house will be swept and others unswept." And so the wife did what her husband had suggested. When the Kulshedra came home that evening and asked the wife whether she had done her chores, she replied, "Yes, I've finished, mother." The Kulshedra looked around and saw that everything had been done exactly as it had wanted. "That wasn't your idea," shouted the monster. "It was your husband's!"

The next day the Kulshedra said to the young woman again, "When I get home this evening, daughter, I want to find two cauldrons of tears here and if I don't, I shall devour you." When the Kulshedra had left, the girl took out the two cauldrons, placed them in front of her and began to weep to fill them up. But in vain the cauldrons would not fill up. When her husband got up, he found his wife weeping and asked her what the matter was. She explained that the Kulshedra had demanded two cauldrons full of tears the night before and that otherwise she would be devoured. The husband said to her, "What a fool you are! Do you think you can fill these cauldrons with tears! Rest for a moment and let me handle this. Take the cauldrons and fill them with water, add a handful of salt and cover them up." The young woman did as her husband had said.

When the Kulshedra got back that evening and asked whether she had done her chores, the woman replied, "I finished everything, mother." The Kulshedra went over and saw that the cauldrons were indeed full of tears. Tasting the liquid with the tip of its tongue, the Kulshedra realized that it was salty like tears, and said to the woman, "I know very well, daughter, that this wasn't your idea, but Swift's." Following this, the Kulshedra began to hate the young man and planned how it would eat him.

But the young man sensed the danger, so he put on some old clothes and went out to one of the Kulshedra's forests to chop wood. The Kulshedra searched through all its forests but could not find him. One day, however, the Kulshedra happened by while the young man was still chopping wood and, hearing the sound of the axe, shouted, "Who dares to chop wood in my forest?" He replied, "I am a poor man and am making a coffin for a young man who just died." The Kulshedra asked who the young man was. "A handsome lad whose name was Swift," the man replied. The Kulshedra was delighted when it heard that Swift had died, and said, "Oh, how happy I am!" It approached the coffin. The young man asked, "Did you know the lad?" "Yes," it replied. "Take courage then, Your Majesty," said the young man, "and climb in and see if I've done everything properly." "I'm so happy that he's dead," said the Kulshedra again, and climbed into the coffin. The young man shut the coffin right away, locked it and set it on fire.

When he had made sure that the Kulshedra had been burned to ashes, he returned home and said to his wife, "The Kulshedra is gone forever. Pack your things and let us return home." So they gathered up all their things, went back home and lived happily ever after. The man who had once been a snake in the daytime and a human being at night was now a human being forever.


[Source: Folklor shqiptar 1, Proza popullore (Tirana 1963). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]